For Kimbell, victory is latest round of karma at Kinderlou

April 16, 2007
By Dave Lagarde Correspondent

If ever there was a Nationwide Tour victory with destiny etched upon it, rookie John Kimbell's win at the inaugural South Georgia Classic at Kinderlou Forest Golf Club last week had to be the one.

Category Total Rank
Eagles 1 T3
Birdies 19 T1
Pars 43 T47
Bogeys 7 T68
Double Bogeys 2 T7
Other 0 N/A
Driving Accuracy 76.8% T11
Driving Distance 303.3 yds. 25
Greens in Regulation 65.3% T25
Putts per Round 26.8 T1
Putts per GIR 1.660 3
Sand Saves 33.3 T43

So how, you might ask, can there possibly be a pre-ordained champion in an event held for the first time?

That's because Kimbell, a 38-year-old veteran of 10 seasons of golf's mini-tours, has been there and done that at Kinderlou. See, Kimbell, a Johnny-come-lately to golf who worked his way up through the ranks at United Parcel Service before turning pro, learned to wing it around the 7,781-yard track on the Hooters Tour. And he did it with unparalleled success.

"I love this place,'' Kimbell said Sunday evening after shooting a final-round 3-under-par 69 -- the lowest number on a brutally windy day -- to edge Australian Matthew Jones by a stroke for his first Nationwide Tour victory in career nine starts.

No doubt about it. This was a case of love at first sight.

The steamy Kinderlou-Kimbell affair started in 2004, when Kimbell finished fourth in a Hooters Tour event there. The spark rekindled the following year after Kimbell returned to finish 10th. The deal was sealed, though, in September of 2006.

Just a month earlier, Kimbell had confided to fellow Hooters Tour player Michael Letzig, a fellow Nationwide Tour rookie in 2007, that he had about had it with professional golf.

"You can't quit,'' Letzig told Kimbell. "You're too good.''

But Kimbell, who decided to finish the Hooters Tour season, had his reasons.

"I wasn't playing very well and I was running low on money,'' he said.

A September to remember at Kinderlou followed August's fleeting down-and-out moment. Kimbell won the Hooters Tour tournament, making enough cash to seed another try at the PGA TOUR's Qualifying Tournament.

This is where Kimbell's story takes another Cinderella turn. As luck would have it, Kimbell gained momentum by motoring through the first stage at -- you guessed it -- Kinderlou on his way to earning exempt status on the Nationwide Tour.

About six months later, Kimbell was producing a solid four days of golf in trying conditions on the longest course ever played in Nationwide Tour and PGA TOUR history. The winning stroke turned out to be a birdie putt on the 16th hole in the final round where the 70-player field averaged 75.29.

"I really don't know what to say,'' Kimbell said, searching for words to describe his victory. "I was happy playing on the Hooters Tour.''

Now here he is, six events into his rookie season, resting in second place on the Nationwide Tour money list with a career-best earnings of $126,139. It just doesn't get any better than that, especially when Kimbell's humble beginning in the game is taken into consideration.

Kimbell was working the third shift -- can you say "graveyard?'' -- with UPS, reporting to work at 3:00 a.m. and toiling until about 11:00 a.m. He did just about everything, loading and unloading trucks and driving before he became a supervisor. Searching for something to do when he knocked off, Kimbell wandered out to the Lafayette (Ga.) Golf Course, a hardscrabble nine-hole facility that since has been upgraded to 18 holes.

"I got the bug,'' he said. "You get off at 11, you have all day to do something.''

So Kimbell became a fixture at Lafayette. Describing himself as athletic, he quickly got the hang of the game without ever taking a lesson. About four years later, Stan Leadbetter, a local restaurant owner who also had a golf Jones, told Kimbell if he ever decided to turn pro he would be interested in sponsoring him.

"My first thought was, I'm doing it,'' Kimbell said. "I waited a month or so, but the thought of playing golf for a living was a pretty neat deal.''

Kimbell was still working for UPS in 1996 when he Monday-qualified for a Hooters Tour event. That gave him the confidence and courage to become a full-time professional. That started a journey through the ranks of the mini-tours that finally ended successfully in La Quinta, Calif., on Dec. 4, 2006, when Kimbell finished in a tie for 64th in the finals of Q-School.

There were stops on the Gulf Coast Tour and Developmental Players Tour, where Kimbell played against good friends Heath Slocum and Boo Weekley. He moved on to the Tight Lies Tour and finally the Hooters Tour.

"I won on every one of them,'' Kimbell said.

And at each one, Kimbell always heard players grousing about their games.

"They would say, 'I'm going to quit and get a job,'" he said, laughing. "My reaction was always the same. I'd tell them, 'Obviously you've never worked before.'"

Years of toil and sweat equity finally paid dividends. Buoyed by a final-round 68 at Q-School last year, a seed was planted in Kimbell's mind.

"I started thinking maybe I can do this,'' he said of competitive golf at a much higher level.

Kimbell admitted he did not know what to expect when he began play on the Nationwide Tour this season. He figured he'd feel his way around for a while and decided not to set any lofty goals. That kind of thinking flew out the window with his masterful performance Sunday afternoon.

"Now,'' he said, "I can set some.''

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